Our world is full of amazing things, and researching them is almost as fun as writing about them.
Honeybees are one insect almost everyone can say they are aware of. Summer months see them buzzing around gardens, stopping to visit flowers to gather nectar and pollinate. Some people unfortunately learn about bees firsthand on the point of a stinger, but that’s another topic altogether. Bee basics are a remarkable topic to learn about and the life cycle of these important insects is much more structured than most people realize.
Unless provoked, honeybees are very gentle creatures who seemingly mind their own business while going through their daily routines. Most bees (about 99%) are called workers, are female, and are less than an inch in length. Some male workers exist and they are called drones and are slightly larger. Unlike the female worker bee, drones do not have stingers nor do they participate in nectar and pollen gathering, instead fulfilling their primary role of mating with a fertile queen to produce offspring. Honeybees are reddish brown and black, with orangish-yellow rings on their abdomen and have black heads and legs.
The life-cycle of a honeybee is about 45 days and during the different stages of life could be responsible for everything from feeding baby bees, tending to the queen, collecting food, building honeycombs, guard duty, or cleaning the hive. A beehive can be any hollow structure or object which looks nondescript on the outside but amazingly complex and organized on the inside. Honeybees make their own special wax called beeswax, which they use to create an interconnected series of little hexagons inside their home. These cells serve many purposes including egg storage, pollen storage, and honey storage. About 20,000 to 60,000 bees live in a single hive, with a higher number indicating the healthiness of the hive. At any given time in a healthy hive or colony, about half of the bees are out gathering nectar and pollen while the other half attend to the queen, the hive, and the brood of baby bees. A healthy Queen bee can lay about 1,500 eggs per day and can live from 4 to 7 years, never again leaving the hive after her first eggs are laid unless a disaster occurs which forces its abandonment.
Honeybees are one of the most important insects found in nature mainly because of their pollinating skills. A combination of wild bees and domestic bees share the duties, although the wild bees only contribute about 20% of the total. About 1/3 of all food we consume annually was pollinated by bees including apples, oranges, lemons and limes, broccoli, onions, Blueberries and cherries, cranberries, cucumbers, cantaloupes, carrots, avocados, and almonds. Additionally we enjoy honey, use beeswax in many applications, and researchers are using honey bee venom to make arthritis medicine. Current estimates are that 2.74 million honey producing colonies of bees under management by professional human beekeepers, a figure which is at its highest in two decades. The fact that bees are even being discussed as much as they have been lately is noteworthy and has roots back in the early 1980’s.
Challenges Facing Bees
Honey bees and their human beekeepers are always faced with a challenge of some sort. Whether from a new pathogen or from deformed wing virus or Nosema fungi or new parasites such as Varroa mites, bees face survival battles. When we factor in other challenges such as a lack of pollen and nectar sources, and the possible effects of pesticides many wondered if honeybees would even survive, yet somehow they continue on. In the last decade, there has been an alarming rate of loss in bee colonies in the United States and much speculation on what this decline could mean for the United States Economy. Wild bees are being studied at the University of Vermont to determine if their losses correlate with those of beekeepers,
Wild bees need large areas of grassland for their habitats and with the world modernizing, those habitats are vanishing. A research team led by Insu Koh and Taylor Ricketts, bee experts at the University of Vermont's Gund Institute for Ecological Economics. Koh and his colleagues modeled what wild bee populations look like now and how this might change in coming years. After their analysis, the research team found that wild bee populations have declined in 23 percent of the US over the past several years. And this has implications for future food security. Koh and his colleagues show that 39 percent of croplands that depend on bee pollination are in areas where wild bee numbers are shrinking.
Domestic or Beekeeper-kept honey bees can make up for some of these losses, but we need to do a better job of integrating wild bees in crop pollination systems because we can't afford to lose these wild bees. He and his colleagues hope that these maps of wild bee decline can help government agencies and land planners determine the best locations for bee habitat conservation.
Insu Koh & Taylor Ricketts
Wild Bee Abundance in the US
Wild Bees at Risk in the United States
Colony Collapse Disorder
Beekeeper-kept Honey bees have been under serious pressure from a mystery problem called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD.) This phenomenon leaves an almost empty hive with no adult bees or dead bee bodies on site, but with a live queen and usually honey and immature bees still present. No scientific cause for CCD has been proven which is quite disparaging to the scientific community – it’s as if the adult bees just disappeared. The Agricultural Research Service (ARS), USDA's internal research agency, is leading several efforts into possible CCD causes in addition to other improved bee management practices. Many other Federal agencies and State departments of agriculture, universities, and private companies are conducting studies of their own to seek the cause or causes of CCD.
Bees at Risk
Unfortunately, CCD is not the only risk to the health of honey bees and the economic stability of commercial beekeeping and pollination operations in the United States. Since the 1980s, honey bees and beekeepers have had to deal with a host of new pathogens that ranged from deformed wing virus to nosema fungi, new parasites such as Varroa mites, pests like small hive beetles, nutrition problems from lack of diversity or availability in pollen and nectar sources, and possible sublethal effects of pesticides. These problems are often hitting in a wide variety of combinations, and weakening and killing honey bee colonies. CCD may even be a result of a combination of two or more of these factors and not necessarily the same factors in the same order in every instance.
Bee Hive Autopsy
The good news is that cases of CCD have declined substantially over the last five years according to the EPA. The overall indicator for bee health has been to measure the survival rate of hives over the winter months. Hives that have died are autopsied to understand what pathogen or environmental factor was responsible. Other than disease, condensation, extreme cold, or starvation can lead to a hive death. A hive autopsy is challenging but some high level things beekeepers look for to guide them in the process are the timing of when the hive died, fall, or winter, is the Queen still living and viable, are the bee carcasses deformed in any way, or as in CCD, are their simply no adult bees remaining?
The number of hives that do not survive over the winter months has maintained an average of about 28.7 percent since 2006-2007, but dropped to 23.1 percent for the 2014-2015 Winter. The decline is good news for interested parties, but the numbers are still too high. The number of those winter losses attributed to CCD has dropped from roughly 60 percent of total hives lost in 2008 to 31.1 percent in 2013. Results of losses specific to CCD for 2014 and 2015 have not been released as of this article. Also, data collected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed that the number of honeybee colonies in the U.S. last year was the highest in 20 years despite very large annual declines.
The Bee Informed Partnership is a collaboration of efforts across the country from some of the leading research labs and universities in agriculture and science focused on gaining a better understanding of honey bee declines in the United States. They track nearly 400,000 colonies across the country to gather statistical data and their data agrees with the EPA data showing winter losses declining, but overall losses still being much too high. Beekeepers have been losing a significant amount of colonies in the summer months with specific states showing losses of over 60%.
Challenges to Wild Bees
Pesticide use has become rampant in modern agriculture and home ownership. Estimates are that use has doubled several times over the past forty years. There are many negative stories surrounding pesticide use, one of which is the toxicity to honey bees. Pesticides damage the ability of bees to gather food and are also killing them outright
Some pesticides kill the bees directly on contact, occurring when bees are on or near areas at the time of application, while other types allow the bees to return home and then they die, sometimes spreading the effects to other bees. There are certain pesticides that have no effect on the adult honey bees, but cause damage to immature bees. A more technical approach identified by recent research identifies two pesticides commonly used could be affecting bees brains, which are about the size of a sesame seed but very powerful. The two pesticides, neonicotinoids and coumaphos make the bees forgetful of floral scents and slow their overall cognitive development. Even more concerning is the combination effect of these two pesticides, which were far worse than individual effect. Bees completely forgot important associations between their ability to gather nectar and identify floral scent plus impact their central nervous systems.
Lend a Helping Hand
Understanding that pesticides are not going to be banned overnight and that many people are either unaware or simply do not care of their harmful impact on bee populations means education is necessary. Starting with some simple habitual changes, the impact of pesticides can be greatly reduced. Since bees are daylight creatures, we can encourage farmers and homeowners to apply pesticides in the evening or on cloudy days. Some crops flower in a very limited window, so all pesticide applications should be made to those crops during times when the flowers are not opened. If commercial bees are being used to pollinate fields, there must be an understanding between both parties on protecting the bees to protect hive locations. These are just a few of the easiest changes to implement. Communication is the key to creating a win-win environment.
Other Types of Bees
There are over 20,000 types of bees in the world and scientists tell us bees have been around for over a million years. Bees are the only insect which produces food that is consumed by human beings. Bees see all colors except the color red. Color identification and their sense of smell help them find the flowers they need to collect pollen. Their sense of smell is so precise that it could differentiate hundreds of different floral varieties and tell whether a flower carried pollen or nectar from ten feet away. The average bee visits between fifty and one hundred flowers per trip, travelling up to six miles and at speeds up to fifteen miles per hour. A brief description of some of the other bee types can help in identification.
These large, hairy bees are common in the southern United States. These social bees are especially good pollinators of blueberry, tomato, eggplant, and pepper. Bumble bees visit flowers during rainy, cool, or windy weather when other bees stay in the hive, and they are especially good in greenhouse pollination because they do not fly against windows like other bees. In some parts of the world, bumble bees are cultured in artificial nests and used for commercial pollination, but the rearing methods are often proprietary and unpublished.
Carpenter bees are large bees that closely resemble bumble bees but unlike bumble bees, their abdomens are shiny, not hairy. Carpenter bees excavate tunnels in solid wood, where they mate and live. Carpenter bees have a minimal impact on overall crop pollination and are known for "robbing" flowers by cutting slits in the side of the flower to reach nectar without even touching the pollinating parts. These robbery holes can be detrimental as other bees use the holes, mimicking their behavior and minimizing the legitimate pollination process.
Sweat Bees are found all over the world and are usually dark-colored and often metallic in appearance. They are very diverse in appearance with some species being all or partly green and a few red. Some have yellow markings, especially the males. They have been commonly called "sweat bees" as they are often attracted to the salt in human perspiration. They do sting, but it’s relatively minor. Sweat bees are important pollinators. You'll most often see them flying around with a heavy pollen load on their back legs and its best to avoid them at as they are most likely headed back to the nest and are on high alert.
Soil Nesting or Mining Bees
Small ground-nesting bees which are usually brown to black in color, and nesting in a burrow in areas of sparse vegetation, old meadows, dry road beds, sandy paths are known as mining or soil nesting bees. The female bee digs a hole 2-3 inches deep excavating the soil and leaving a pile on the surface. She then digs a side tunnel that ends in a chamber (there are about 8 chambers per burrow). Each chamber is then filled with a small ball of pollen and nectar. An egg is laid on the top of each pollen ball and the female seals each brood chamber. The emerging larval bees feed on the pollen/nectar ball until they pupate. Some mining bees are good pollinators.
Africanized "killer" bees look similar to regular honeybees, but they have different wing measurements. Africanized bees live in South America and the Western and Southern United States and have been known to chase people for over a quarter of a mile once they get excited. Strong vibrations are usually the culprit for getting them excited. The venom of a killer bee is no more dangerous than a honey bee; however these bees attack in swarms which can produce multiple stings. One thing worth mentioning is that killer bees are less susceptible to colony collapse.
From Wild Bees to Beekeeping
Bees and honey have been a part of many cultures and mythology throughout history, with early cave drawings dated around 6000 BC depicting people climbing trees to harvest honey. Beekeeping as a discipline dates back at least 4,000 years. In medieval times bees were usually housed in hollowed-out logs or in baskets, and harvesting the honey meant killing the colony with Sulphur smoke and shaking out the dead bees. It wasn’t until much later when Thomas Wildman (1734-1781) developed the method of layering trays one on top of another that honey could be harvested without killing the bees. The earliest record of beekeeping in America dates back to 1622 with bee colonies imported from England. In the 1850’s American beekeepers started importing stronger and more superior Queen Bees from around the world. Honey production in the 1920’s saw specialization and the birth of a growing industry.
There is no such thing as a typical day for a beekeeper, only repetitive tasks. Most days will involve collecting honey, beeswax, and royal jelly various hives and colonies. A beekeeper can also be involved in dealing with farmers who are requesting services, talking other beekeepers to share vital disease prevention information, cleaning hives, building new hives, or answering questions from students, law enforcement, or homeowners who have Bee problems. Beekeepers are unofficially the experts on everything related to bees, wasps, hornets, and sometimes other flying insects in the eyes of everyone around them, however with so many different species it would be virtually impossible for anyone to master them all.
Word of Warning
It doesn’t take years of schooling to become a beekeeper, but it does require some training and a great mentor to help out when a situation occurs. Someone new to beekeeping would start with one or two hives which can be purchased from other beekeepers. These starter hives will take about a year to become full colonies. Also important to starter beekeepers would be a bee suit and a lot of nerve; most beekeepers are going to get stung whether they like it or not. The key is to move around the hives with as little disturbance as possible, and many beekeepers check their hives when most of the inhabitants are out foraging. All keepers agree that most of their stings come when their bees feel threatened or if a keeper kills a bee by accident while working their hives. The venom of a dead bee seems to incite every other bee in the area to behave aggressively and attack. Because of these factors, a beekeeper needs to find a place to establish their hives where things are calm and away from children or pets.